A few explanations before we begin.

No, we will not be seeing Nick or Milly in this story; however Nick is alive and well, as he should have been in the anime since he did live in the manga.

I am thoroughly annoyed with all those that seem to think that Meryl is a tagalong or not worthy of even considering a relationship with Vash. From the way the story is written, you get the impression that the "Vash job" was not the first she and Milly had been sent out on, thus they must be more than capable of taking care of themselves. It's just that when compared to all that is Vash and the creatures he's up against, they are completely outclassed. After all, they are only human.

I do not own Trigun... if I did, I'd have a very large loaded cross sitting next to my bed for when people annoy me.

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Vash's Soliloquy for this particular piece: (please, read letting Vash's voice say the words)

A solstice is the longest day of the year or the shortest. It gives us either more or less time spent in the darkness. But underground, the only light is the light you bring with you. And sometimes, the light of hope from those important to you brings more illumination than any light could ever bring. In the mines of the town called Solstice, her light shined like a beacon, calling me home.

Solstice

It was warm, unusually warm actually, even for a planet such as Gunsmoke, with it being early spring.

Meryl Stryfe was making her way to the entrance of the Solstice Mine, wishing she'd thought to bring a canteen. Although the sun hadn't been up for more than two hours, it was already almost unbearably hot. Her only consolation was that once she got to the mine, she'd get some relief from the heat. She would just be happy to see this day over. Then, she would be able to relax for a few days, while waiting for the rest of the circle she traveled with, to come in from their own adventures.

Meryl's employer, the Bernardelli Insurance Society, had sent both she and Milly, to this small, back desert town to write a contract for insurance on their mine. Their main job of course was still making sure the Stampede did as little damage as possible, but the Society seemed more than willing these days to pull them off that job, so they could do field inspections. Normally, she and Milly would just bring the guys along. While the guys, hopefully, stayed out of trouble, Milly and she would take care of the field work and continue on their way.

But this time, Meryl was working alone. She really hadn't needed Milly's help. And with the Proposal finally made and gleefully accepted, Milly and Wolfwood had gone to visit Milly's family so that she could introduce him to her parents. It seemed a good time.

Vash had decided to take off on his own for a few weeks, as well, to check up on his brother While Knives was grudgingly giving the spiders a chance, he had chosen to stay far from them, and went back to his solitary life at one of the crashed ships and the Eden he'd created there. It was a decision that had made Meryl happy, though she'd never said anything about it to Vash. While Knives had changed a lot, especially in the way he treated Milly, Nick and herself, Knives still wasn't ready to deal with the human race at large.

So while everyone else got a vacation, she had been here working out contract negotiations and conducting employee interviews. This inspection was the final thing to be done for the contract. The owners had shut down the mine for the day so she could conduct her inspection without interference. Since the mine was closed they'd moved all the battery powered carts they used out as well, to charge at their solar charging stations at the mine's office in town. She would only be able to check the front most portions, as she didn't have one of their carts with her, but since it was the oldest part of the mine, it would be the most likely area to show reasons for concern. She needed to be able to really look at things up close and by walking she could run her hands along the surface of the mine as she walked through it. She'd done an inspection earlier in the week of the entire facility by cart. Once she finalized the paperwork, she could enjoy a few days of rest herself.

She felt an immediate change in the temperature as she passed into the opening in the side of the mountain. Meryl sighed as the air cooled her now over-warm body. She took a few moments to revel in the temperature change that had brought her relief so suddenly. Then, she took out a small notebook and started jotting down notes on the mine itself. For the most part the mine was in good shape, but she conscientiously noted some of its aging structural beams were in need of replacement, the lack of good lighting and a dozen other small details most wouldn't have bothered with. As she moved down the more darkened pathways, she pulled out a small flashlight and held it between her teeth when she needed to write.

She walked further back into the mine, taking the occasional side path to make her inspection more complete. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, she heard voices coming from the front of the mine. She tucked her notepad and flashlight into her cloak as she readied herself to berate the people that had come to disrupt her work. She turned around and headed back though one of the many side passages, moving carefully through the gloom. As she got closer, she could here the voices more clearly and she could hear children crying.

"You'll get the kids back when we get one million double dollars for their safe return." A male voice was saying. "If you know what's good for you and them, you'll go get the money and do what you're told." She heard someone reply but they were so far away, she couldn't make out the words. She finally managed to get as close to the entrance as she dared, moving through the first side passage from the entrance, trying to keep from being seen.

A group of men were standing at the entrance, all armed. There were eight of them all carrying shotguns with handguns at their sides as well. They all wore dusters and scarves across their faces. They wore hats, all pushed down low, nearly covering their eyes. The way they held themselves and their weapons made Meryl nervous. These guys were not new to holding weapons; they were, in fact, very comfortable with them.

"Just when I need you, needle noggin, you're hundreds of iles away. "She said to herself, under her breath.

She pulled two derringers from beneath her cloak and took a deep breath. She peeked back around the corner of her hiding place, trying to take in everything that she was looking at. There were about ten kids behind the men, all looking to be below the age of 10 or so, both boys and girls. Judging by the way they were dressed, it looked like a class from a school. They all wore better clothes that you'd wear on a weekend or if you'd been at home, but not like the clothes that you'd wear to church on Sunday. The girls were crying; the boys just looked angry. They were all holding hands with one another, as if their hands were some kind of life line.

Then the unexpected happened. There was a loud clap, like Wolfwood's Punisher when it was in missile launcher mode. The impact of what ever had been fired vibrated the wall that she was leaning against. Everything went silent and then suddenly there was a sound like the very stones were being pulled apart. Meryl spun around the corner, grabbing the closest child and jerking him in the direction of where she had been hidden. "Go' she had said in a loud whisper, pointing down the side passage. The first child didn't let go of the child after him, nor did the child after him let go. It looked as though she'd managed to get them all, until the last child let go of the chain, just as the first stones from the ceiling started to fall.

Meryl ran to the child, sweeping her into her arms. She almost managed to clear the rock fall when she felt a sharp pain go through her head. She released the child, just barely avoiding dropping her. "Go to your friends, I'll be there as soon as I can," was all Meryl said to the girl before the world started spinning around her. She managed to keep her eyes open long enough to see the child get to safety and then all was dark.

---------

Meryl came to herself slowly, pulling her head away from a persistent tapping on her face.

"Come on lady, wake up." The voice was high pitched but soft.

Meryl opened her eyes to see nothing but a thick inky blackness surrounding her. A splitting headache and a sharp pain to in her lower leg greeted her, as her eyes opened. She shut them again quickly, trying to deny the pain the hold consciousness would allow it to have.

"Sam, move off her. She's probably hurt and you ain't helpin', said a young male voice to the right of her.

"But, Jordan, we gotta get her awake. Ma says that if you get hit on the head like that you gotta stay awake." The young girl's voice sounded frightened.

Meryl spoke up then, not wanting to worry them further. "I'm awake," she spoke softly, mimicking the tone they had used, trying not to move her face anymore than necessary. The pain was bad enough without causing the splinters of pain that she knew would come with speaking. "Why's it so dark?"

"Carrie's dad shot into the mine with that sandworm gun of his and caused a cave in," the boy answered. He sounded older than a ten year old should; his disgust for whomever Carrie's dad was clearly coloring his voice.

Meryl's eyes went wide in the darkness. What kind of an idiot fired a gun designed to kill a sandworm into a mine? The ammunition for the things was as big as both her hands put together. They were lucky they weren't all dead.

"Can you move?" Sam asked her voice trembling slightly, her fear and worry more evident now.

"I think so," Meryl replied slowly. She pushed herself up into a sitting position slowly, the pain in her leg getting worse as she tried using the muscles to give her some leverage. Just as she got to a sitting position, a sharp pain stabbed through her leg.

"There's a rock on my leg, can you guys move it?" Meryl asked the two that sat with her, through clenched teeth. She hoped that her voice wasn't colored with the pain she was feeling.

She looked around her. There were some pinpricks of light filtering through the rocks, though they weren't enough to see by.

"Where are the rest of the kids?" She asked, suddenly worried, the events that had gotten her into this predicament suddenly playing themselves out in her mind.

The two that were with her, had been feeling their way down her body to the rock that was on her leg. She felt the two kids roll the weight from her leg, which immediately started to throb back to life, the pain sharpening as her foot began to tingle.

"They're still up in that passage you sent us to,' the boy responded.

The two of them grabbed her arms as she stood shakily, putting as little weight on her injured leg as possible.

Meryl pulled herself up as straight as she was able, pushing away the pain she was feeling, as she felt the heavy weight of responsibility settle down on her shoulders.

Somehow she had to get all of them out of this.

She reached up and took the hands of the kids that had been holding her arms, trying to brace her as she stood.

"Come on," she spoke into the darkness that surrounded the three of them. "Let's get back to the others."

Jordan whistled softly and she heard a whistle in response. Then Jordan whistled again.

With the whistles acting as a beacon, they made their way slowly and stumblingly to the side passage. The feel of small hands on her body told her when she'd arrived and she heaved a mental sigh of relief when she felt them. They were still here, thank God.

Meryl reached out above the height of most of the kids and limped forward, gently moving them aside, hands out stretched 'til she felt the wall. She had to get her weight off her leg. When her hands met the hard, coolness of the rock, she turned her back to it and carefully leaned back against it, allowing it, not her rapidly swelling leg, to take her weight."

She took a deep breath. "Okay, is everyone accounted for?" Meryl whispered. A quiet chorus of "yes" met her. Meryl nodded, even though she knew none of them could see it.

"Alright then, my name is Meryl. I've met Jordan and Sam. What are the rest of your names?"

There was a short silence, as if the little group was sorting itself out. And then one by one they replied as if taking part in a roll call.

"I'm Ash." "Name's Khristen." "Mari." "Everybody calls me Mac." "Lynnie." "Tori." "Chase." "I'm Carrie."

Meryl listened carefully to them as they spoke, trying to memorize their voices. It sounded like they'd gone from oldest to youngest.

"Let's sit down a minute, so we can talk, ok?" Meryl asked, pitching her voice to that compassionate, mothering tone that all women seem to get when surrounded by children who are scared or hurt.

"Is anybody hurt?" Meryl spoke into the darkness as she heard the last scrapings of the group sitting down around her.

"No, nobody, 'cept you, La- er Miss Meryl," came Jordan's voice. It seemed he'd been silently nominated group spokesman, or perhaps he always was. He seemed to be the oldest of the group.

"Good." She breathed in trying to think about the situation at hand. "Now, do you know much about the mine?"

There was an uncomfortable silence. She could hear them as their feet scraped the rock floor beneath them. Meryl could almost picture them with their heads hanging, eyes firmly affixed to the ground. Good grief, did they think she was going to reprimand them?

"Listen, guys, to get out of here, I need to know. If you've been playing here and you're not allowed, that's for your parent's to deal with. There are no punishments coming from me. If you know a way out, I'll be thrilled, not angry."

Jordan again spoke up, albeit, a bit more shyly than before. "This passage crosses another on back. The further back we go the better off we'll be. They's got torches back where the light don' go." Meryl nodded to herself.

"Hey, Miss Meryl?" A high voice spoke, shakily. It was Tori's voice. "What about the bad guy's?"

"What do you mean?" Meryl'd assumed they'd all been under the rock fall.

"Four or five of 'em ran by, right after you got Carrie. They's still here too." Jordan spoke up.

'Great' was Meryl's first thought. 'They're going to be desperate now. They'll want these kids more than before.'

"Ok, so it would probably be best to get away from here. They are in the dark too, so, if we stay quiet we should be alright."

She paused for a moment, bracing herself for the pain she was going to feel when she stood up. She didn't have time for pain. She had to be strong.

And then she did something she'd never though she would do – she took a page from Vash's book and pasted a smile on her face and forced all her feelings away from her mind. Even if the kids couldn't see the smile, they'd hear it in her voice. Her confidence would give them confidence. Her emotions and pain had no place here. She would get the children to safety and then she would feel, and not until then.

"Jordan?"

"Ma'am?"

"Is there a back way out of here?"

"Yeah, they built a couple emergency shafts. One's newer and pretty well kept up. The other nobody takes care of anymore, it's too close to the front of the mine and nobody really works up here anymore. We've got a hide out there."

"That's where we will go then." She stood up gasping at the pain and then pushing it away.

"I need your ribbons girls." She said as she pushed her hand into the center of the little group. "I've got my hand straight out in front of me, just put them in my hand.

The girls pulled the ribbons from their hair and a couple of the boys even donated the string they'd been using as a belt. She felt them touch her and then feel their way up her body to her hand. There they deposited the ribbons. Meryl counted the ribbons and then bent down bent and ripped a strip of cloth from the bottom of her cloak. She ripped that strip in half.

"Ok, I'm going to tie us all together, so nobody wonders off. Jordan, you're going to be up front with me. Sam, I want you in the back with Carrie. Everyone else settle in where you want and I'll get started."

A few minutes later, everyone was as firmly linked together as Meryl could manage in the dark, her clumsy hands causing the kids to laugh as she struggled with the material as she tied them to one another.

"Ok, Jordan, you know where we're going, lead on."

Meryl tried not to think about the fact that she'd just put a child in the position of determining all their fates.

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Vash the Stampede wore an intense look of concentration on his normally carefree visage. Knives had him cornered. He worked out move after move that he could make to get free, and finally saw an opening, if only the plan would work.

He brought his eyes up to look at his brother's face and then settled them back down to the chessboard. He'd never won at this game, he didn't know why he'd agreed to play it and he really didn't know why he'd let Knives talk him into setting a wager on the game. He didn't even have the 200 double dollars they'd wagered on this game. He'd have to borrow money to pay Knives off.

Suddenly, he heard Meryl's voice ringing in the vaults of his mind. "Just when I need you, needle noggin, you're hundreds of iles away." And then her voice was gone.

What the... What was that all about? He forgot the board completely as he concentrated on her and only her, ignoring Knives grousing about how long he was taking to make his move. He could sense a growing unease in her and then a burst of fear. Then everything went blank.

Unbeknownst to his small circle of friends, he'd used his gifts to set a link to them. It wasn't strong or particularly complex. It was simply an alert system of sorts. When they were apart, he knew when they were in trouble. Trouble still followed him and in turn it followed the people he now traveled with, because they were known to be with him.

It was the girls he worried about mostly, when they had to leave him and Nicholas behind. People tended to bother them only when they didn't have Vash the Stampede or Chapel the Evergreen around. But, they'd always managed to handle whatever came their way. Normally, well before he and/or Nick could get there to handle it for them. Bernadelli had sent them out after him for a reason, after all. They were quite able to take care of themselves, having reputations of their own out there in the world as Derringer Meryl and Stun-gun Milly.

The tie with Meryl had always been particularly strong. Though they'd never spoken of their feelings for one another, Vash was quite aware of how she felt about him. He believed, hoped, after all their time together, that she knew her feelings were reciprocated. In the two years they'd traveled together, since he put the link in place, this was the first time that she had ever had enough fear and anxiety for him to hear her voice when the "alarm" went off. Normally, it was just a sense that he needed to get wherever she was. Something must have gone terribly wrong.

Knives looked at his brother, watching his emotions flit across his face. It was clear Vash's mind was no longer on the game.

"Vash... what is it?" Knives asked, his voice conveying his annoyance at his brothers distraction.

"I'm sorry, Knives, but I've got to go. One of the Insurance Girls is in trouble."

Knives looked at him, raising an eyebrow, "Exactly how do you know this?"

"I just do, alright?!" Vash looked at his brother, "Alright?" His voice lowered to a whisper and his eyes were begging for understanding.

Knives just sighed. While he was no longer bent on the annihilation of the species, he still didn't understand what his brother saw in these spi—humans.

However, the insurance girls had proven to be exceptions to his normal thoughts on the subject of Humans. They had nursed him back to health, moving past their own feelings, for his brother's sake. And over the time he spent with them, he'd come to grudgingly respect and even to some extent care for them.

He had for the first time since his childhood, met humans that didn't see him or his brother as monsters, but judged them on their actions alone. And even after all he'd done, they'd chosen to believe that he could change and had not killed him out of hand when they had the chance. Meryl, especially, had decided to show that she meant what she said. She could have, at any time, let it be known that he was still using his powers. She'd let him into her mind anytime they spoke after he told her that it was the only way he'd ever believe anything she said. Oddly, she had never tried to test that he was telling the truth and she never tried to sugar coat things, she was always blunt with him and told him exactly what she thought.

That had been, in part, what brought him around. He'd told her the parts of their history Vash had not. She didn't say that it didn't matter what they went through, because Vash hadn't become like he had become, she had only said that she could understand why he would hate them, but not all humans were like that, and to please give them a chance. She reminded him of Rem a great deal, only she didn't have Rem's naiveté or constant sunny disposition.

"Since Milly's with Chapel, and no one in his right mind crosses Chapel, I'd guess the one in trouble is Meryl." He looked at Vash questioningly. Vash only nodded.

Knives looked at him steadily, remembering a day a little over a year ago, when he and Meryl had been at home alone. She'd been reading a book; he'd been sitting at a chess board playing a game against himself.

He'd looked up at her. His mood had been quite sour. He'd entered her mind without a by your leave. "Why are the three of you still here?"

She'd looked up at him, and met his eyes. She didn't answer for a long moment and then she shrugged. "Because you guys need us to be, I guess. Vash needs you to understand, to at least try to understand, his point of view. In order for you to do that, you have to be around humans, and we are the humans." She'd paused and given him a look that he hadn't been able to fathom. Then she continued, "We are here because we care about him, and as an extension of that, we care about you."

His eyes had gone wide at that. "You, care about me?" He hadn't been able to call her an out right liar because they were speaking mind to mind.

She'd tilted her head and looked at him with sad eyes. "Knives, I don't like what you've done in your life. I don't like how you've chosen to live. But I do believe that somewhere, deep inside of you there is a good person. You've been hurt and scarred. The difference in you and Vash is in how you dealt with the pain. Somewhere inside of you, there is a scared child, striving to protect itself. And in protecting itself, it's done some really horrible things. Yet despite all of that, we have come to care for you, love you, not only because you are his brother, but because you are you. We love Knives for being Knives, just as we love Vash for being Vash. When you choose to be, you can be kind, you can be thoughtful, and you can be a genuinely good person. I only hope that someday, you will be that person all the time instead of only when you choose to be.

He'd nearly knocked the table over in his haste to leave her, before she could see the effect on him. Not since Rem had he heard the word love used in the same sentence as his name. In some way, he couldn't explain, it was freeing. It also had another effect. He came to see, in some small way, that there could be butterflies among the spiders.

Knives looked at Vash, "Then go, I'm not going anywhere. I'll leave the board set up until you can come back."

Vash nodded as he moved to his pack and began hastily throwing things into it.

He paused only long enough to look back at his brother as he opened the door. "Knives, I...."

"Vash... just go. I'm not blind, I know what you feel for her, and while she may be human, they are hardly the spiders that I despise. They are spiders that prey upon other more despicable spiders and if you have to have them, they are the best kind to have. Go save the day. It's what you specialize in. The board will be here when you return; after all we have a wager, remember." Vash heard the double meaning in his voice. He wasn't talking only about the game at hand, but the larger one in the outside world, where Vash was ever striving to prove that the humans that populated the desolate planet they inhabited weren't 'just spiders' after all.

Vash simply nodded and walked out the door.

As he pulled it closed, he heard Knives voice, speaking so softly he just barely caught the words, "Save her Vash, because she saved me. She helped me remember...my heart."

---------

They'd been walking for what seemed like hours. Meryl had remembered her flashlight shortly after they started out, but they used it sparingly. As slow as they were forced to move, using it and its meager light would have only been wasteful and foolish.

She was tiring. The wound on her head had never been tended and it was sticky under her fingers. Her leg felt like someone had stuck it into a meat grinder. The kids were tiring too, though more from the stress of the situation than anything. They'd been forced by lack of light into a shuffling pace, one hand tied to the person in front of them, the other gliding across the mine's wall. Every time there was a sound in the tunnels they froze in place until it faded away.

"Jordan, how much further 'til we get to the tunnels with the torches?" she asked

He pulled out the flashlight and clicked it on to get a bearing on their location. "'Bout another twenty minutes at this pace Miss Meryl." Meryl thought it over in her head. She didn't want to be in those tunnels feeling like she was right now. Once they got to regularly lit tunnels they were going to be easy prey. And right now she didn't have enough energy to put up any kind of a fight.

She took the flashlight from Jordan and looked around the area where they were. There was a large boulder, easily as tall as she was, on the opposite side of the passage. If it didn't press all the way against the wall, they might be able to rest there.

She loosed herself from the line and limped over to the rock, peering behind it as well as she could with the flashlight in her hand. She pulled one of her derringers from inside her cloak and then squeezed behind the rock for a look around.

She jumped as a lizard scampered out of its hiding place and ran between her feet and out of the way. She gave the space a thorough inspection. No snakes or bats, it would serve her purpose. It looked like someone had started digging out this part of the mine and had stopped about ten feet into the wall, leaving it in a deep bowl shape. When they found nothing worth mining in this direction, they had obviously decided to block up the entrance.

She whistled softly to call the children to her. The scraping of feet answered her call. She squeezed back out to the front of the entrance of the little man made cave. "Ok guys, time for a rest," was all she said. She handed the flashlight to Chase since he was the closest to her and she started untying them one by one." When the last tie fell away, she took the light back from the boy and led them all through the narrow opening between the boulder and the space behind it.

"Get some sleep," she said to them softly, "We'll rest here for a couple hours and then start moving again. Don't worry about anything, I'll keep watch."

She limped slowly over to the side wall near the entrance and turned to press herself against it and slid down it putting her weight on her back and good foot. The kids followed suit. They gathered in close around her as they settled down, careful of her injuries, two of them reclining on her shoulders, two more using her legs as pillows. Carrie crawled between her legs and settled her head on Meryl's stomach. The actions shocked Meryl and touched her. She looked to either side of her to see that the kids not reclined on her were reclined on the kids that were.

Once they were all settled, she clicked the flashlight off. She had not realized that darkness could be as deep as it was here in these tunnels they walked in. She closed her eyes and stopped even trying to see. She put the energy into what she could do, which was listening. She listened for any danger as the kids quieted and stared to doze off. Meryl found herself yawning soon after they settled in. Try as she might, her body was worn out and she fell into a light doze, completely aware of her surroundings, yet on the edge of true sleep and that was where he found her.

---------

Vash sat in the back of an old battered truck, legs stretched out in front of him with his head pillowed in his hands. His eyes were closed as the truck made its way across the bumpy terrain. His mind wasn't focused on the trip, but on Meryl and her plight. He'd almost blacked out when she suddenly popped back into his mind a few hours ago. Her pain had been intense. She'd shunted it way quickly, forcing herself to feel it only at a manageable level.

He'd felt her fear and overwhelming sense of responsibility. He upped the ante a bit, wanting to know what the hell was going on that had her in the condition she was in. He'd reached into her mind for a brief few seconds, to catch a glimpse of where she was. Wherever it was, it was dark, very dark. She'd been surrounded by kids and was using soothing tones as she talked to them. He caught only snippets of the conversation, something about a mine collapse and bandits.

He'd kept track of her since. The pain she was in was hard for him to bear, but he wasn't anywhere near close enough to her to do anything about it. He could only keep his vigil and hope that she didn't kill herself before he got there.

Vash felt it when Meryl fell into a kind of waking sleep, aware of where she was, yet on the borderline to true sleep. It wasn't a good restful sleep, but it would allow her body to rest.

He stretched his senses toward her and carefully insinuated himself into her mind.

Dreaming

"Meryl."

Meryl heard Vash's voice ringing inside her head. She very nearly bolted to true wakefulness.

"Meryl, don't do that. I'm not there, I'm only here in your head."

Meryl had never heard Vash's mind voice. She'd heard Knives's many times. It was his preferred way to communicate.

"Vash, is that you?" She put the words into thought as Knives had told her to do, knowing that Vash would "hear" them. Lying was impossible mind to mind, thus, why Knives preferred it. While you could evade or work around a question, you couldn't out right lie. But when Knives had explained this little rule to her, she'd taken him very much to heart. If he wanted to know how she really felt about something, she told him bluntly and honestly, mind to mind, no holds barred.

"Yeah, Meryl, it's Vash. What the hell has happened to you?" His voice sounded like it was coming from behind her. She turned around in her dream to find "him" standing there his arms crossed in front of his chest. His eyes were filled with concern and his voice was pitched higher than usual.

She looked at him and decided then and there to do this carefully. There was no need to worry him excessively.

"That would be a long story, Vash. Let's just say it's been a hard day at work."

She smiled at him, trying to calm his nerves. "I'm ok, really, got a knot on the head and a bum leg." She limped over to him and slowly reached up to his face and forced him to look down and meet her eyes.

"I'm not in perfect shape, but I'll be fine I promise."

Vash held her eyes with his. "Meryl, just tell me what happened? Summarize. I will be there soon; I need to know what I'm walking into.

His voice held a firm note, which told her he wouldn't be put off. If he was already here, in her head, he'd snoop if he had to.

"While I was doing the final mine inspection, some guys kidnapped the kids from the school in town. They brought them here to hole up. They were demanding a ransom. The father of one of the kids shot into the mine and caused a mine collapse. I got caught in the rock fall getting the youngest of them out.

Some of the bandits are still here and we are making our way to an old emergency shaft that's not used anymore."

Vash nodded slowly. "Ok." Then he looked at her and pulled "her" tightly to "him". "God, Mer, I am so worried about you. You get some rest. I'll wake you if there's trouble."

"He" slid a hand beneath "her" legs and lifting her easily and then settled down onto the floor of the mine, reclining against its rock wall.

Meryl could only nod tiredly. She trusted what he said here in her mind more than she'd ever trusted anything before. While Vash had lied to her before, he had never done so without reason. Here though, he could skirt around the blunt truth as she had done with her injuries, but he couldn't outright lie. If he said he'd watch over them, however he planned to do it, he would.

Meryl let her mind drift further down into sleep and the dream faded from view.

Vash merged his senses with hers completely once she drifted off. Her ears became his ears. In the darkness where she sat, vision wouldn't matter. He could feel the children piled around her, their breathing penetrating her clothes, hot on her skin. He could also feel something else.

Meryl had downplayed her injuries to him. She had a concussion and a good sized gash on the back of her head, which was still sticky with blood, though it no longer bled. Her leg was fractured in at least one maybe two places, not completely broken but still plenty painful. He could feel that she had buried this pain deep down inside and was holding it there with a steady determination. Even as she slept, he could hear a silent mental chant running through the back of her mind... "have to make them safe.... have to get them out... have to protect them."

He'd always known she was strong, but he'd never realized she was this strong. "He" pulled "her" closer to him and settled down for his watch. He knew he'd have to wake her all too soon."

Meryl woke to the sound of Vash's voice whispering in her mind. At the opening of her eyes, the feeling of his arms enveloping her faded away. "Meryl it's time to wake up now. You've had about three hours. You need to get moving." 'Not to mention that with that concussion you don't need to be sleeping.' He thought to himself.

"Thanks for the wake up call, Vash."

"This is too hard to keep up with you awake and so far away, Meryl. I'll be there as soon as I can, probably another three to four hours. Keep yourself in one piece 'til then, eh?

She simply nodded as she felt him leave her. She smiled to herself, despite her pain. Somehow he'd known that she needed him. He was on his way here. He'd be able to save them, even if she couldn't. One of the major worries on her mind fell away. Someone now knew the kids were still alive and in these tunnels. If she fell, he'd find them.

"Come on guys, we gotta get moving." She spoke aloud.

There was a bit of grumbling as the kids came awake, groggily answering her in unintelligible voices.

"Guys, wake up. We need to start moving again." She shook the kids that lay on her. She felt them stiffen against her as they came fully awake opening their eyes and seeing nothing but darkness.

She heard one of them mumble, it sounded like Mac, as he sat up. "I was hoping this was all a bad dream."

Meryl responded in a soft voice. "Unfortunately, we aren't that lucky."

"We've only got another twenty minutes or so to the tunnels with the torches. We'll use the flashlight to get there." Meryl said as the little group stood around her and stretched their limbs. She clicked on the light so that they'd have a little light to move by. They took turnabout taking care of necessities at the back of the cave and soon were grouped back up around her.

"Once we get there, I don't want us all tied together, if we run into trouble we may have to run and I don't need you guys tripping over one another. However, I want you all to pick a partner and take each others hands."

Only now did she stand up. The rest had done her good, but she still hurt in a bad way. The pain in her leg at this point was manageable, mainly because it had swollen and the swelling had had somewhat of a numbing effect. Her head was still pounding, but it didn't seem to be affecting her vision. It wasn't like she hadn't been injured before, she'd live.

She pushed herself off the wall and limped around to where the entrance to their hiding place lay. "Let's go," was all she said before squeezing out between the boulder and the opening behind it. Once out in the passageway again, she made her way as quickly as possible to the wall on the other side.

Meryl led the way with Jordan and Carrie right behind her. They'd been walking about five minutes when she spoke softly into the darkness to the boy. "Jordan, are we still on your twenty minute time table?"

"We're moving faster now, ma'am. I'd say we're about five minutes ahead. The light and not being tied together is helping our pace. We could probably move faster, but you're hurt, so we can't move too fast." Meryl just nodded.

Jordan looked up at her as they walked moving to her side. "I didn't mean that in a bad way Miss Meryl. We need ya with us. You saved all of us. We'd probably be under all those rocks right now you hadn't grabbed us."

He fell silent then and only the sound of their feet clicking against the stone floor of the mine could be heard as they made their way through the tunnel. It was with a combination of happiness and anxiety that the dim light of torches ahead was met.

As they approached what seemed to be a crossroads in the mine, lit with torches lining the walls, Meryl slowed her pace and pulled out two derringers from her cloak, silently berating herself for having put off reloading all of them. She only had 10 of her two shot derringers with her, the rest were back in her room at the hotel, awaiting cleaning and reloading.

She brought the group to a halt when they reached the crossroads and carefully leaned her head around the corner to take a look in both directions. Nobody seemed to be in the tunnel going across this one at the moment. She closed her eyes and stretched her hearing as far as she could, straining to hear anything at all. "Jordan, which way?" He pointed to the left. She gave a short nod. "Alright kids, let's move." She said in a quiet voice. "Jordan, you got point." She looked down at the boy weighing options and coming up with none she liked.

"Jordan, how old are you?"

"11, but I'll be 12 in July; I'm just small for my age. Or that's what Ma says."

"Do you know how to use a gun?"

Jordan nodded to her slowly. "I'm the best shot in town, ma'am, even won contests as far away as Mei City, shootin' against people lots older than me."

Meryl smiled at the pride in his voice as she pulled out a derringer and reached to hand it to him. She looked at him, her expression sobering. She moved so that he could clearly see her face. "Aim to hurt, not to kill. We only need to disable them. And you are far too young to have to deal with taking another person's life."

She laid the gun in his palm and he slowly wrapped his fingers around its grip. "Yes, ma'am, shoot to hurt. I can do that if I have to." She motioned for him to go and he tightened his hand on Carries and headed into the new passage. The rest of the kids followed two by two. Meryl followed them out wishing she'd been able to think of another way.

They were able to move more quickly now with light all around them, so the kids had picked up their pace. While Meryl understood their eagerness to get out it was playing merry hell with her body to keep up.

They'd been moving about fifteen minutes when Jordan suddenly came to a stop ahead of her. The group behind him came to a halt two by tow as he raised his hand. Meryl made her way to front next to him looking ahead in the dim light.

Two of the men from the cave entrance were standing in the middle of the tunnel, talking and blocking their way. Jordan looked up at her as she halted beside him. She leaned down so she could be at his eye level.

"Now what?" He mouthed, exaggerating his words so she could read his lips.

She shook her head slowly and pointed back the way they'd come. Maybe there would be another way.

Jordan turned around and waved the kids behind him back, pressing his finger to his lips to tell them to be quiet about it.

Meryl started walking backwards from the men, keeping an eye on them, her derringers outstretched and ready to fire. Once she was sure she was out of earshot, she whispered to Jordan who was walking almost back to back with her. "Is there another way?"

She turned around to face the same direction they were now heading. As they were walking, she noticed another tunnel branching off from the one they were in. She moved ahead of the group and motioned them down into side passage. Once they were out of immediate sight of the passage they had come from. She dropped her guard, lowering both derringers to her sides.

Jordan had a thinking expression on his face as if trying to map out what he knew of the tunnels of the mine.

"Not really, Miss Meryl. We have to take this shaft to the next. I don't know of another way this far back. When we get closer, they'll be some sidetracks I know, from exploring. We normally go to the emergency shaft, from outside, up further in the hills." The look he gave her told her he was expecting her to be mad.

"It's alright. It's a mixed blessing that you know anything about the tunnels at all, since you aren't really supposed to be down here." She smiled at him then, and he smiled back. "So now we do the only thing we can do. We wait for them to move and then try to make up for the time we lose when we get back out there."

"I wish the machinery was still down here," Jordan said sullenly as he leaned against the passage wall. "Then we wouldn't have to walk. It's only about 20 minutes from the front entrance to the emergency shaft by cart."

Meryl nodded knowingly. Everything on wheels had been moved into town to be charged. If there'd been even one of the smaller carts they used for moving supplies they wouldn't be walking. Nobody walked in this mine, it was too deep. Where they dug at now, you'd spend half a day just walking to, it had been an all day thing the day they brought her down here and drove her through to do the inspection of the entire mine.

She was broken out of her reverie by the clicking sound of foot steps. The whispered conversation that was going on behind her broke off as the children heard them as well.

"No luck at all this way," one of the men was saying to the other as they waked past the side tunnel entrance. "Maybe Carter'll have had more luck."

As they walked by, Meryl loosened the grip she'd been holding on her derringers. Were they looking for a way out or for the kids? Unfortunately, asking that question wasn't really feasible right now.

She waited until she couldn't hear even the echo of their steps in the tunnel halls and then ushered the kids back they way they'd been going. Just when she thought she'd managed to make a clean get away, Khristen lost her footing. The sound of her yelp rang through the tunnel as she fell on her knees. Meryl swung around to the direction the men had been going even as she pulled the girl up to her feet.

"Are you ok?" She whispered.

Khristen nodded tears forming in her eyes. Meryl squeezed her hand, "It was bound to happen eventually, don't worry about it now." The two men that had walked passed them came back into view.

'Damn.' Meryl thought as she watched at them approaching.

"Run," was all Meryl could say at that point.

"It's those damned kids." One of the men yelled, his voice echoing all through the mine.

"Run," Meryl said louder, snapping the kids out of their deer in the headlights stances. "Stay together, but go." At that they took off running as fast as their legs would take them. Meryl followed as well as she could.

The sound of their running footsteps rang through the tunnels, and was met by the sound of heavier footsteps giving chase. An oddly detached corner of Meryl's mind noted that her question from before had now been answered at least, they must have been looking for the kids.

The footsteps behind them grew louder as they moved forward, as an additional number of feet were added to the chase. The sound of them gaining ever closer on her urged Meryl to move faster than she had thought she'd be able to move through the pain she felt.

The sound of a shot ringing out ahead of her froze her blood. It was too loud to have been her derringer. She put on a burst of speed, just as the crack of a derringer split through the air.

She caught up with the kids just in time to see Jordan and Carrie edging around a man lying on the floor, unmoving. She released the breath she was holding when she did a quick headcount and found everyone still there. She looked at the man on the floor then. There was a small trickle of blood coming from a wound on his right temple.

She motioned for the kids to keep moving as she moved to the man and went to one knee beside him, holstering one derringer but keeping the other trained on the man. She laid her fingers to the side of his throat to find a nice steady pulse. He was just knocked out. She reached own and picked up the revolver where he'd dropped it as he fell. Large hand guns weren't her favorite weapons, but you take what you can get. She slid the revolver into her waistband at her back and moved on.

She moved as quickly as she could, while feeling around in her cloak and pockets. She came up with five bullets. It was at that point that the kids came back into view. She moved up to Jordan and Carrie. "Jordan, stop a minute." The whole group stopped at her words. "Good shot back there." He just nodded.

She reached the hand out that held the bullets and opened it to him. "Here, remember that only holds two shots." He nodded again as he took the ammo from her hand. He pocketed the bullets, his expression, unreadable.

Meryl watched him. Eleven years old and he'd shot a man. But, there was nothing for it, and she shook away the though as the group began moving again, hustling through the passage.

The next hours were a blur as their escape become a game of hide and seek with gunfire. They'd run for a while and then the group of men hunting them would cross their trail The path to their exit was arduously stilted as they'd move forward and then fall back and then move forward again.

---------

Vash the Stampede jumped out of the bed of the truck he'd been traveling in, landing with a cat-like grace. "Thanks, mister," was all he said before moving away from the truck. The man just waved and put the truck into gear, heading out of town.

He looked around the small mining town settled at the base of the closest thing this planet had to mountains. They were more like low foothills, having been eroded away by the continually moving dust and sand. The town itself was quiet, but to the north of the town there was a loud buzz of activity. He let his ears lead him to the mine.

Vash picked his way carefully up the trail to the mine. He could still "feel" Meryl as he made his way up the hillside. As he'd traveled he'd been able to devote his senses to her and he'd felt her anxiety level heighten. She was also no long able to effectively block the pain she was in. However, now that he'd had to pull his concentration from her, he couldn't feel her pain; he only knew that she was still there and conscious. Right now, that would have to do.

It had taken him three hours from the time that he'd talked to her to get here. Apparently for some reason, she and the children hadn't made it out yet. Judging from Meryl's anxiety levels earlier, something must have happened inside the mine.

The entrance to the mine was frantic with activity as Vash approached. He stayed on the edge of the crowd, listening to a group of women who were hanging lanterns on hooks in the gathering gloom.

"Any word yet?" An older lady was saying to a younger one, who looked very pregnant.

The girl finished hanging the lantern in her hand. "No, Mama, not yet, they found a body, but it wasn't one of the kids."

The older woman nodded and looked to the front of the mine.

"Where's Davis?

"The Constable took him off to the jail after the cave in. Right now it's just reckless endangerment and public intoxication. If they find one of the kids..." The girl broke down in tears. "Oh, my poor Carrie!"

Vash moved away from the conversation at that point to the entrance itself. The men were clearing away the fallen rock with practiced care. They still had a long way to go before it was clear. He was going to have to get into that mine another way.

He turned away from the mine to head back down toward the town. He'd have to go in by the emergency shaft that Meryl had spoken of. But first, he'd have to find out where it was.

Vash stopped about halfway down the hill and moved off the main path onto another that was almost not visible. He found a secluded place and sat down, letting his eyes drift shut as he reached out his senses to find Meryl within the mine. He'd be able to talk to her now, being this close.

---------

Meryl was crouched in a low position, her hurt leg stretched in front of her as she leaned against the wall of the side passage where she and the children were hidden. Her head was leaned back and her eyes closed, a derringer raised in her hand leaning just against her forehead and nose. They'd managed to elude their pursuers for the moment. She flinched when she felt a feather-like touch on her senses.

"Meryl."

"Kinda busy right now, Vash. Did you need something?" Then she realized that he was speaking to her without her being unconscious. Hope entered her mind voice as she spoke again.

"Are you here?" She said a mix of hope and happiness coloring her words.

She could feel the smile that had crossed his lips. "Yeah, just got into town, but the main entrance to the mine is still blocked. How do I get to that shaft you're going to?

"If I have one of the kids explain to me, will you hear them?" She asked not wanting to risk even getting one detail wrong.

"If you have skin contact with them, yeah, I'll hear them."

Meryl, turned slightly and pulled Jordan, who was sitting across the way to her, taking his hand in hers. "Jordan, this is going to sound nuts, but just do as I ask."

The boy nodded slowly.

"I need you to tell me how to get to the emergency shaft from outside, in as much detail as possible. Don't leave anything out."

"Ok, Miss Meryl... I can do that." The boy shrugged, "I'm not sure why you'd need it, but first you have to go up the path to the mine about half way. There'll be a path that you can barely see leading off to the east. Follow that around for about an ile and a half. You'll know you're in the right spot if you look to the north and see a red flag up the hill. The flag is what marks the entrance."

Meryl nodded and smiled at the boy, releasing his hand. Then she turned her attention back to Vash.

"Did you get that?"

"Got it... I'm gonna get moving now."

"See ya soon, I hope."

"Mer...."

"Yeah, Vash..."

The sound of footsteps coming toward her caused her mind to pull away from him momentarily.

"Be careful, I'll be there soon."

---------

Vash pulled away from her and stood, looking around him and then looking down at his feet. 'Follow this for an ile and a half...and then look north.' He set out at a brisk walking pace. 'Just a little longer, Meryl... I'm on my way.'

He arrived at the flag that marked the opening of the emergency shaft and carefully pulled the wooden door that lay over it up and open. Dropping to his knees, he looked into the area below. Seeing no one, he carefully climbed down the rope ladder hanging from the beam he'd knelt against. His eyes glowed dimly in the darkness as he looked around his surroundings, noting the pallets on the floor and the toys piled in a corner. He only hoped they'd play here again.

He turned from the scene and made his way to the doorway of the mine shaft that led here, moving forward in his search for Meryl and the children.

---------

A gun shot rang out behind Meryl as Jordan herded the kids down yet another side passage. She shook her head trying to clear her vision, as it faded in and out. Her head was pounding with an intensity that she hadn't been aware she could feel. Each throb caused her vision to pulse. She'd long since given up on running and had an awkward gait, dragging her injured leg as she moved. Fortunately, they had hit familiar territory for the kids. The winding side passages here were places they were used to. Unfortunately, Jordan had traded his gun for a torch, since no one actually kept up this area of the mine; they would have been back in the darkness without it. Carrying their light source with them made them easy to spot.

Meryl fired back, and tossed the empty derringer aside, and reached into her cloak, feeling around within it. She sighed as she realized she was down to her last one. "Jordan, how much further?"

"Not too long now, we need to take the next passage up and then cut back over to the main one. 50 yars or so from there and we'll be to the shaft."

Meryl nodded slowly. "Do you have any of the bullets I gave you left?"

Jordan reached into his pocket and pulled out two bullets, handing them to her. Meryl clutched them in her hand. Another shot rang out, closer this time. "Time to move," she said, with a grimace. She pushed off the wall, and closed her eyes to keep her vision from swimming.

---------

Vash could hear the echo of shots firing ahead of him. He pulled his .45 from its holster as he moving swiftly but silently though the maze of tunnels, towards the sounds. Rounding a corner, he could make out two pinpoints of light ahead of him. He picked up his pace moving as quietly as he could. Once he'd closed the gap between them he put on a burst of speed and then jumped, clothes-lining two men from behind. As soon as he landed on the ground, he was off it again, delivering a sweeping kick to the head of one of them men, even as he brought the butt of the Colt against the other. They're bodies went limp and slid completely to the ground. Vash bent down and pulled their guns from the holsters at their sides. Tossing them away into the darkness, he looked down at the men.

"Man... you know... I was supposed to be on vacation."

He picked up the two torches, snuffing one into the stone floor and walking quickly away with the other.

---------

Meryl gave a sigh of relief as they entered the main passage from the side passage they'd been in. God, it was almost over, fifty more yars and the kids would be out.. She placed a hand against the wall, or at least she hoped it was the wall, as she was seeing two of everything at this point. Jordan had and Sam had slowed in their walk, falling back to where she was. "Miss Meryl, are you ok?" She nodded and then looked at the pair.

"I'll be fine." She held the derringer in her hand out to Jordan. "There's only one shot left. Make it count if you need it." She paused looking at the boy, well, boys actually since there were two of him. "There are no other places that branch onto this one right? From here to the exit, it's a straight shot?"

Jordan looked at her and nodded.

"Ok, I want you to take them and run. I will hold here. I can't run. When you get there and out, do whatever you have to do to make sure that they can't follow you."

"But, Miss Meryl, that'll leave you here alone with them."

"Don't worry about me, a friend of mine is here, he won't let them finish me off."

Jordan looked at her dubiously, but nodded his head. He handed her the torch and pulled her small flashlight from his shirt pocket and clicked it on .The sound of footsteps approaching made her look back down the shaft. "Go now; run as fast as you safely can."

She pushed them away, "I said run."

They moved off catching up with the rest of the group and she heard the sound of running footsteps behind her.

Once they were gone, she moved to the center of the passage, dropped the torch to the tunnel floor and sat down heavily next to it, then pulled the gun she'd picked up from the bandit earlier from her waistband. She popped open the chamber, only two shots, no four, no definitely two shots left. She pushed the chamber back into place as she brought the knee of her good leg up and draped the arm holding the gun around it. She hung her head, just touching it to her arm on the knee and started singing softly to herself, trying to drown out the pain. "Ohhhhoh, on the first celestial evening..." the words gave way to a hum.

She could hear the footsteps growing closer. The sound of a shot down the passage echoed up to her just as she felt the impact of the bullet in the shoulder of the arm not holding the gun. Her body jerked back and then settled back into the position it had been in. She was in so much pain already that her body really wasn't affected by the additional damage. She didn't utter a sound, only looked up, squinting at the three men now standing about ten feet away from her. They kept wavering in her vision three, then six, then three again. Three men, two shots...damn... her head kept throbbing.

She raised the gun she was holding, it quivered slightly in her grip. "I won't let you pass."

One of the men laughed. "And you are gonna stop us how? By the looks of you, you wouldn't even begin to know where to aim. Move out of the way...or we will move you." The man's hand went to the gun at his side.

"No."

She looked at him. She knew there was no way she was going to possibly survive this. Her eyes darted around looking for any way that she could take them out, her vision swimming.

'Oh God, Vash, I'm so sorry. I guess this is the end.'

She watched as the three of them pulled out their weapons and leveled them toward where she sat.

---------

"Oh God, Vash, I'm so sorry. I guess this is the end."

Meryl's voice rang loud in his mind. He paused mid-stroke as he banged a bandit's head into the wall and then allowed the man drop harmlessly to the ground.

"Meryl." He said with both voice and mind.

---------

"Meryl."

Meryl felt the brush of Vash's mind against hers as he said her name.

"Meryl, what happened?"

'The kids are on their way out the emergency shaft. I stayed to block the way. There are three of them here. I've only got two shots. And I can't see to make even one shot count.' She breathed in at the effort of even speaking mind to mind. "I can't see it hurts too much."

Vash had been walking as he spoke to her. He stopped mid-stride and moved a little deeper into her mind so he could see through her eyes. He recognized where she was. Somehow, he'd missed them, she was behind him. "Mer... there's no way I can get there in time." His voice was high pitched in her head.

Meryl only nodded. "It's ok Vash."

"No, it's not, I can't get there." His voice sounded panicked. "I can't get there!"

He went silent for a moment as if thinking. "But, I can do this."

Suddenly, there was no pain. Meryl's vision cleared and the fog that had been skewing everything faded from view. She'd never had such clarity in her vision, actually. She could follow the trail of the dust motes in the air and see even the smallest details in the beams and tunnel walls. "Do what you have to do to survive, Meryl, I'll be there as soon as I can."

And then he was gone.

---------

Vash broke contact and then dropped to his knees as the pain he was blocking in her body washed over him. He sat there for a moment, adjusting to the sensation, and then gritted his teeth and pushed off the ground and started running back through the tunnels. 'Damn it Meryl, don't you dare die on me.'

---------

Meryl looked at the men, as they advanced toward her. "I wouldn't come any closer, if I were you," she said softly, raising her head so she could meet their eyes. "It wouldn't be healthy." She slowly moved her eyes across the ceiling and then back down to them in a nonchalant manner.

The man's only response was to fire again. The shot glanced across her cheek, leaving a line of dripping blood.

"Well then, I can see you've made your choice," she raised her head towards the ceiling and then quick as lightning brought the gun up and fired two shots in rapid succession, one at each end of the beam over their heads. There was a momentary silence, and within that moment she thought that the idea hadn't worked.

The men smiled and then their eyes grew large as a ripping sound tore through the air. The beam overhead came crashing down, catching them in its fall and pinning them beneath it.

Meryl sat frozen for a moment, the scene had played itself out to her in slow motion. She looked at them carefully as she remembered Vash's words. "Do what you have to do to survive." She looked at the fallen bodies; she could hear their groans from where they lay.

"I couldn't have killed them Vash...I would rather have died than... than to knowingly bring you that kind of pain." She slumped over where she sat, her head falling to her arm that rested on her knee, the gun sliding from her limp fingers.

---------

Vash entered the hall where Meryl had been on silent feet. The tunnel was as silent as a tomb. Meryl had blinked out of his mind moments before, her pain vanishing from his senses. He'd put on a burst of speed, breaking all known speed records.

He wasn't prepared for the sight that met him when he came upon it. Three men, all still breathing, lay under a wooden beam that crossed the width of the tunnel. Meryl was sitting in the center of the tunnel up ahead of him, her head fallen onto her knee, a gun lying at her feet, the white cloak she wore a bloody mess. Vash stepped over the beam and walked to her slowly, his vision clouding with unshed tears. He reached out and touched her till bleeding cheek, wiping the blood away with his finger tips. He could feel her slow, yet steady breaths on his hand as it rested there. She was alive, but she was hurt badly. "God, woman, you're a mess. I thought I told you to be careful."

Vash slid his arms beneath her body and picked her up slowly, her head rocked over to his shoulder as he settled her into position. He looked back at the bandits, never wanting to hurt someone more in his life than he did at this very moment, and then turned and walked toward the emergency shaft.

He arrived at the entrance to the room at the end of the shaft, relatively quickly for a man carrying a grown woman in his arms in the dark. He walked in to find a boy of about ten or so, standing with a derringer aimed at the door, standing on the rope ladder. He lowered the gun as soon as he saw who was being carried.

"Is she ok?" The boy demanded. He raised the gun again. "Are you the friend she said was here?"

Vash nodded. "She'll be alright, but I need to get her to a doctor."

The kid lowered the derringer and scooted up the ladder making room for him. Vash rearranged Meryl, putting her on one arm, slightly bent over one shoulder and carried her up slowly.

By this time, the rest of the kids had rushed down to the mine entrance and were running back, followed by the town's men, all carrying weapons. Vash stepped up out of the mine with Meryl in tow and started making his way down to the town.

---------

Meryl awoke slowly, her eyes fluttering open and then closed and then finally open again. The room she was in was dimly lit. She was covered with a light material of some kind and she felt numb from head to toe, kind of like her body was at one remove from her. She felt a light pressure on one of her hands. She looked down to see Vash holding her hand, his head lying on the bed, cushioned by his other arm.

"Vash?"

Vash opened his eyes as he heard his name spoken in a hushed voice. He lifted his head, looking up at her. Their eyes locked as her fingers entwined with his.

"Meryl."

He stood up and then leaned across her body bracing himself on his free hand. "Are you ok? Are you in pain? Do I need to call a doctor?"

Meryl made a small shaking motion with her head. "I'm ok. I really don't feel much of anything right now."

"That's the medicine, if you didn't have it, you'd be feeling a lot of pain right now.

"Vash...tha-"

He placed a finger lightly to her lips. "Don't say it. I didn't do anything. You did it all on your own." He released her hand and brought his arms around her in a light embrace, his head just touching hers.

Meryl felt the whisper of his touch on her mind.

"God, Meryl, I almost lost you."

"Maybe, but I came through, I'm still here." She replied, answering his hug with one of her own.

"Don't ever do that again." He looked down into her eyes holding them for a moment, tears bright in his eyes, and then dropped a soft kiss on her lips. "I love you to much to lose you just yet, so don't ever do that again."

Meryl smiled at his words, her eyes filling with tears as well. "I love you, too, and now that I've finally got you, I promise, I won't be going anywhere for a very long time."

He sat down on the bed she lay in and moved around to where he could hold her better, and then pulled her tighter to him, just relishing in the feel of finally having her in his arms.

They stayed that way for a long time. Finally Vash broke the silence... a smile crossing his face as he dropped a light kiss on her head. "Uh, Mer, you don't happen to have $$200 I can borrow do you?"